While no medical procedure or medication or even home remedy, for that matter can ever be completely without risk, safer anesthetic agents, monitoring by specially trained veterinary technicians, and protocols that stress a pet's safety and comfort before, during and after anesthesia have minimized risks substantially, even for older and chronically ill pets.
That's the good news.
The bad news? Pet owners too often opt out of potentially lifesaving protocols or don't follow veterinary advice before sedation, increasing the risks for their pets.
With proper pre-op care, anesthetic risk is very low. That wasn't always the case, of course, and old fears based on old information can be difficult to ease. But don't let your fears keep you from providing your pet with care that can dramatically improve quality of life, such as necessary dental care. (If you doubt how much, just think of how desperate you were for dental care the last time you broke a tooth or had a toothache.) Bringing your knowledge up to date and working with your veterinarian to minimize risk will help you make the best decisions when it comes to your pet's care.
So what's changed in recent years? In a word: everything. Everything, that is, except your veterinarian's guidelines for how to present your pet on the day of a procedure with an empty stomach.
Anesthetic drugs tend to induce vomiting, and that can lead to aspiration pneumonia. That's because the larynx relaxes during anesthesia, which means vomit may end up going down the trachea to the lungs instead of through the esophagus and back to the stomach. And once in the lungs, pneumonia can develop. If you give your pet food or water after midnight on the day before surgery, call your veterinarian and fess up. It's always better to reschedule an elective procedure than to go forward at higher risk than necessary.
Your active role in your pet's anesthesia may not have changed much, but that's not true of the role of your pet's veterinarian and veterinary technicians in a pre-anesthetic examination and diagnostics. These are intended to spot and address any health problems your pet has before anesthesia.
While many pet lovers probably think of veterinary anesthesia as a gas given through a mask over the animal's face, the modern practice of preparing an animal for surgery is a no-size-fits-all combination of injectable medications (often combining anesthesia and pain-control agents), anesthesia-inducing gas and pure oxygen the latter two delivered through a breathing tube to maintain an animal's unconscious state.
The use of intravenous fluids during anesthesia is another safety measure, meant to allow a veterinarian to react rapidly if something unexpected happens during surgery.
Keeping tabs on it all is a veterinary technician with special training in monitoring the animal during anesthesia, providing the surgeon with the information he or she needs to adjust or react to any unforeseen problems. Heating pads are another safety measure, preventing organ damage if a pet's body temperature dips and increasing comfort as a pet recovers.
Just as the pre-anesthetic advice from the veterinarian needs to be followed to the letter, so, too, do any take-home instructions. While pain medications and anti-biotics may already be on board as the pet leaves for home, these medications may also need to be given in the following days.
The improvements in anesthetic agents and protocols have such high levels of safety that you should no longer dismiss essential care because of what may be an outdated knowledge of the risk. Do your part to help your pet, and your veterinarian will do the rest.